The College Football Overtime Rules Need to be Revised

With all the other hot topics to discuss, such as alleged molestation and the always-present college football post-season debate, the Confidential is hesitant to start another debate.  But the college football overtime rules stink.  There is no need for the NCAA to continue to use a system that is more “NHL Shootout” than the “Modified Sudden-Death” rules of the NFL during the playoff season.  Let the kids play real football in overtime.

As all college football fans know, the overtime rules allow each team to get one possession at the 25-yard line.  The possession order flips each overtime period.  In the third overtime, teams must go for a 2-point conversion after a touchdown.

The first problem the Confidential has is that the possessions start at the 25-yard line.  For the most part, teams start in field goal position.  If they gain 5 yards, it is a 37-yard field goal.  Even for college kickers, this is not a daunting kick (sorry Boise).  In a game like LSU-Alabama, the defenses came up big all night in denying the opposing offense the opportunity to get into field goal position.  And then in overtime, the rules just gave each team automatic placement there.  It was a field goal contest with LSU winning and Alabama losing.  The result was fair–Alabama has no reason to whine or complain.  But is this really how games should be resolved?  The field goal equivalent to an NHL shootout?  A team does not move the ball, but can win because it has the better kicker?

To be sure, the NFL sudden-death rules are a bit harsh.  The team that wins the coin flip MUST take the ball (ask the Detroit Lions about this) and the majority of time will score via a field goal to end the game.  The other team does not even get the ball.  That seems odd.  Football is not just an offensive sport–it is a game that involves offense, defense, and special teams.  Allowing the recipient to win on a field goal where the opponent does not even get a chance to put its offense on the field against its opponent’s defense diminishes the fairness and reliability of the result.

Even the NFL is moving away from the rule, allowing both teams to at least have possession of the ball in playoff overtime games.  To deprive an overtime game of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers, simply because their teams had the poor fortune of losing a coin flip, was finally deemed insufficient by the NFL.  The college rules, fortunately,  never wavered in recognizing that both teams deserve to put their offenses on the field.

But the NFL does not adopt entirely new rules for overtime, such as having the teams start from the opponent’s 25-yard line. Nor should college football.  Just guarantee each team a chance to possess the ball and be done with it.  Play normal football and see what happens.

The second problem the Confidential has with the rules is that it is as if the goal of the college football game is to end the game as soon as possible.  What’s the hurry?  Baseball doesn’t start extra innings with a runner on third-base.

Even the NHL plays a 5-minute overtime (albeit with 4 on 4) before resorting to the shootout.  And those rules do not apply to NHL playoff games, which just continue indefinitely until there is a winner.    After all, the NHL playoffs are elimination-type games (some are elimination, all count towards determining elimination).

College basketball provides 5 minute overtime period(s) with the same basic rules–regardless of whether the game is played in November or March.  Who can forget the epic six-overtime Syracuse-Connecticut game?   The game ended at 1:22 a.m.  Is there any reason a college football game cannot extend as long as necessary to reach a reliable result?  Absolutely not.  In fact, college basketball features players fouling out and being unable to return in overtime.  Eight players fouled out of the Syracuse-UConn game.  That led to reduced rosters.  In football, most teams travel with at least 65 players and usually quite a bit more.  There is no concern about not being able to field a team.

That being said, the Confidential does understand that college football is grueling.  Players need to be appropriate hydrated wearing all of those pads.  The game is, itself, physical.  So if there is a reason to not drag out the game by having coaches play a very conservative style of overtime and taking three fifteen-minute overtime periods to resolve.  That is understandable.  But that is why a modified form of sudden-death rules is appropriate.

In light of all of this, the Confidential proposes this for a modified, sudden-death overtime:

  • The overtime game begins with the last team to score in regulation receiving the football via kickoff.
  • The first kickoff by any team in overtime cannot be an onside kick.  The kick must travel beyond the 50-yard line or it is a 10-yard penalty–with the receiving team choosing to apply to the recovery or require a re-kick with the penalty yardage.
  • The team that receives the first kickoff can punt, score, or be scored upon.
  • If the team that receives the first kickoff punts, they lose the game if its opponent scores a TD or FG.
  • If the team that receives the first kickoff is scored upon via a safety, defensive touchdown or punt return touchdown, the game ends without any further action.
  • If the team that receives the first kickoff scores, the other team will get one offensive possession.  That team has the one possession to tie the game or win the game.  If they score to take a lead, they win the game.  But, if they tie the game, the overtime shifts to full sudden-death mode.  The next team that scores by any method wins.
  • After each team has one possession, onside kicks are allowed.
  • A fumbled punt return or kickoff return counts as an offensive possession.

With this rule, both teams would have at least one chance to put its special teams and offense on the field.  If the receiving team gets conservative and does not go for it on 4th down or kicks a FG, they run the risk of losing by a FG or TD later.  If the team that gets the ball second chooses to go for the tie, rather than the win… so be it.  Do not complain that you lost in sudden-death when you had the opportunity to win.

The only unfairness possible is if the first team with possession  scores a TD, goes for two, and converts it…. in that instance, the team with the ball second has no chance to win it.  But even then they could decide to kick an onsides kick if they really did not want their opponent’s offense back on the field for a sudden-death chance to win it.  At least there is a chance.

Return to the LSU-Alabama overtime.  By not having both teams start at the 25-yard line, either Alabama or LSU would have to drive the field to score a TD.  Or have their defense make a play to get them in FG range.  Or have a punt return that sets up field position.  In other words, even the FG would require some performance by the three phases of football.  Whomever won that game would have done something other than have a FG kicking contest.  The result would be that much more reliable.

And given that the FBS system is all about the regular season being the playoff, isn’t that all the more important?  Let Oklahoma State play Iowa State in a real overtime to determine if the Cowboys lose control of their own destiny.  Let Alabama and LSU play real football to decide the outcome in overtime.  Overtimes decide hugely important games.  These overtimes would be thoroughly enjoyable for the fans watching in person and on television.  Everyone wins if the NCAA adopts these more reasonable overtime rules.